Monday, February 09, 2009

Death Toll from Aussie Blazes Now at 200

VICTORIA, Australia (February 9, 2009) -- Victoria's bushfire death toll has hit 200, as major blazes continued to menace many country towns and a massive relief operation gathered pace. 52 major fires are still burning with some firefighters having worked 3 days with no sleep. More than 700 homes have been destroyed and 330,000 acres have been scorched.

Blazes have been burning for weeks in the southeastern state of Victoria but turned deadly on Saturday when searing temperatures and wind blasts created a firestorm that swept across the region. A long-running drought in the south, the worst in a century, had left forests extra-dry and Saturday's fire conditions were said to be the worst ever in Australia.

Evidence of heart-wrenching loss abounded. From the air, the landscape was blackened as far as the eye could see. In at least one town, bodies still lay in the streets. Entire forests were reduced to leafless, charred trunks, farmland to ashes.

The bushfires have been moving across the terrain with lightning speed, which has made it impossible for firefighters to build firebreaks in order to separate the blazes from tinder dry fuel. Much of their time is spent going into burned towns in an attempt to recover burned corpses.

The Kinglake area remains the worst hit by a fierce 220,000 acre firestorm, which ripped through the region on Saturday, killing 103 people, so far, and destroying over 550 homes. Nearby Marysville was annihilated and is one of dozens of towns that have been declared major crime scenes as police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon confirmed some fires were deliberately lit.
An emotional Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the firebugs responsible were nothing short of mass murderers.

"What do you say about anyone like that? There are no words to describe it other than mass murder," Mr Rudd said.

Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteers have been traumatized by many of their gruesome discoveries and the job of searching for bodies has been taken over by specialized police Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) teams.

As refugees flooded down the mountain from Kinglake and surrounding townships into Whittlesea, emergency relief workers headed the other way, taking desperately needed food, water and fuel supplies to firefighters and those who have remained behind.

"We’ve been making the area safe for firefighters to work in but (we’re) also getting supplies and resources to people on the mountain who decided to stay and protect their properties," CFA spokesman Dave Wolf told AAP.
Many firefighters stood helpless as firestorms roared through communities consuming their own homes and those of their colleagues. While responding to fires in the Yarra Valley on Saturday, Fire Lieutenant Drew Adamson's strike team was stopped just outside Yarra Glen to extinguish an overturned burning car. When he opened the door of the wreck a body fell out.

"It's just like a bomb blast, like street after street is just no longer there.” Adamson said. “You see fireplaces and remnants of tin roofs still there and car bodies, cars that are half alight still."

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